24 movies to watch in 2021
We still don't know when theaters will be open. But there are plenty of new films to look forward to.
It might be tempting the universe to present you with, well, something to look forward to.
I say that because rereading my list of the most anticipated movies of 2020 is a sort of ironic survey of an industry in turmoil: now we have the hindsight to know of the shooting schedules that would be scrambled, the release dates that were delayed (and then delayed again). We know that theaters would sit dark and empty for months, and billions of dollars would be lost.
Today, in the first week of January, there is still no clear sign of when things will return to normal. But studios have started to adjust. Many of the films near the top of this list are going straight-to-streaming, a pandemic-proof strategy that could have enormous consequences for the industry. The others scheduled for later in the year are full of optimism, with release dates pinned to the belief that widespread vaccinations will reopen theater doors by summertime.
Isn't it wonderful, anyway, to hope?
Movies we were looking forward to in 2020 that we're still looking forward to in 2021: The Many Saints of Newark (now set for March 12); No Time to Die (now set for April 2); A Quiet Place Part II (now set for April 23); Last Night in SoHo (now set for April 23); Godzilla vs. Kong (now set for May 21); In the Heights (now set for June 18); Top Gun: Maverick (now set for July 2); Jungle Cruise (now set for July 30); Dune (now set for Oct. 1); The Eternals (now set for Nov. 5); and West Side Story (now set for Dec. 10). Stillwater, Annette, The Souvenir: Part II, and Bergman Island remain without release dates at this point.
1. Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, Feb. 12)
Judas and the Black Messiah will be one of the first movies to be released under Warner Bros.'s ambitious and controversial new plan of putting its films in theaters and on HBO Max the same day. Daniel Kaluuya stars as Fred Hampton in this story portraying how William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield) served as an FBI informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party. Though in previous years a January or February release date might have made me wary, the extended eligibility window for the Oscars due to the pandemic puts this smack in the heart of the new awards season, and Black Panther's Ryan Coogler vouches for the project as one of its producers. That, coupled with the excellent trailer above, leave me with zero reservations.
2. The Mauritanian (Kevin MacDonald, Feb. 19)
I'm getting strong Zero Dark Thirty vibes from The Mauritanian, which stars the great Jodie Foster as Nancy Hollander, the defense attorney for Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim), a Mauritanian man detained at Guantánamo Bay without charge in relation to 9/11. Based on the true story, the film follows Hollander and her associate (Shailene Woodley) as they try to get justice for Salahi, who they argue is "not a suspect, but a witness." On the other side is Lt. Colonel Stuart Couch, played by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who is seemingly doing his best Forrest Gump impression if the trailer is any indication. Don't let the hammy Southern accent throw you off, though: Variety's Clayton Davis viewed an unfinished version of the film and wrote that it has "the goods to be a game-changer this season" and could be Foster's "awards comeback."
3. Raya and the Last Dragon (Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, March 12)
March 12 might seem a little early to expect everyone in the United States to be vaccinated and for theaters to be reopened and booming, but Disney already has a pandemic-proof plan for Raya, which was delayed to 2021 from its original premiere date of Thanksgiving weekend 2020. Now debuting in theaters and on Disney+ simultaneously, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original animated story set in the southeast Asia-inspired fantasy realm of Kumandra. With monsters threatening the land, it is up to the warrior Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) and the water dragon Sisu (Awkwafina) to save the world. Though the trailer doesn't give away much more in terms of plot, the animation style is gorgeous, and the original concept makes it an exciting addition to the otherwise tired Disney catalog.
4. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Tom Gormican, March 19)
I have no idea what is going on with this movie, but I want to know so much more. Nicolas Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself, who is facing financial ruin (presumably due to the purchase of dinosaur skulls, etc.) when he decides to accept the $1 million invitation of a super fan (Pedro Pascal, hilariously) to attend his birthday party on his private island. But when things take a turn, Cage is "forced to live up to his own legend and [channel] his most iconic and beloved on-screen characters in order to save himself and his loved ones," Variety explains. Hey, if we can't have a National Treasure sequel, at least we might get Cage doing a Ben Gates in order to escape from the Mandalorian! Neil Patrick Harris and Tiffany Haddish are also involved. Yes, all this sounds utterly bonkers, but in case you hadn't heard, Nic Cage is good again.
5. Reminiscence (Lisa Joy, April 16)
Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy has heretofore been known for her work co-writing the mind-bending HBO series with Jonathan Nolan. She also directed an episode in the show's second season, "Riddle of the Sphinx," in which the character William force-feeds Major Craddock nitroglycerin before shooting him in a gory explosion. Vulture raved that the episode was "beautifully directed," and said Joy gets "full marks in actually understanding cinematic language instead of just going for cool aesthetics." How exciting, then, that this year we get Reminiscence, her feature-length debut. The story, also written by Joy, is about a man (Hugh Jackman) in the near-future who can help clients relive their memories. He falls in love with a woman named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), who he soon discovers has a dark past when troubling revelations about her arise in another client's memories. Westworld's Thandie Newton also stars.
6. Cruella (Craig Gillespie, May 28)
I'm not entirely sure how Disney is going to pull off a sympathetic origin story about a villain who is best known for skinning puppies, but we're going to find out! Cruella takes audiences back to 1970s London, where teenage Estella (Emma Stone) dreams of being a fashion designer. Having grown up with nothing and resorted to a life of petty crime on the streets, a chance encounter gives her a whiff of how the other half live. Then, when "an up-and-coming rockstar commissions Estella to design him a signature piece, she begins to feel as though she has truly arrived," the official Disney synopsis goes on to say. "But what is the cost of keeping up with the fast crowd — and is it a price Estella is willing to pay?"
7. Jurassic World: Dominion (Colin Trevorrow, June 10)
A reported 40,000 COVID tests were administered over the course of the nearly 100-day shoot of Jurassic World: Dominion, the sixth film in the dinosaurs-gone-wild franchise. The good news for fans is that the reason for all the precautions is due to the fact that the crew spent months hand-making dinosaur models and shooting on location in Malta, so they didn't have to fall back on patching the movie with imperfect VFX. Jurassic World: Dominion reportedly picks up where 2018's Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom left off, with "the technology to create dinosaurs not only going fully open source, but a number of the creatures escaping the Lockwood estate in Northern California and making their way into the wilderness and outer urban areas," Den of Geek reports. Sounds … bad for mankind! Bryce Dallas Howard, Kristoffer Polaha, Chris Pratt, and Sam Neill all star, but here's to hoping my favorite dino, the archaeopteryx, finally makes it into the movies.
8. Luca (Enrico Casarosa, June 21)
Just in time for summer is this new, original, coming-of-age animated tale from Pixar, set on the Italian Riviera. Luca is a young boy who is busy experiencing all the joys of an Italian youth (gelato, pasta, swimming, scooters) with his friend, Alberto. But Luca has a secret: Alberto is a sea monster, who lives beneath the ocean. Director Enrico Casarosa grew up on the Italian Riviera himself, and calls the story "deeply personal"; though Luca is his first feature-length debut, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his short, La Luna, in 2012, and worked as a story artist on Cars, Ratatouille, and Up. He cites The Little Prince and the beloved Japanese animator, Hiyao Miyazaki, as influences — apparently, even Luca's last name, Portorosso, is a nod to Miyazaki's film Porco Rosso.
9. Zola (Janicza Bravo, June 30)
The "greatest stripper saga ever tweeted" began in October 2015 with the fateful words: "Y'all wanna hear a story about why me & this b---h here fell out??????? It's kind of long but full of suspense." What unfolds in the 147 tweets to follow is the basis for the film Zola, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year and has been described as having "the same frenetic energy" as Aziah "Zola" Wells' original thread. Taylour Paige plays Zola, a stripper who gets roped into traveling to Florida with her new friend, Stefani (Riley Keough), who, alas, has left out a number of important details about her associates. "The whole thing feels like a cracked-mirror Hustlers meets Uncut Gems meets The Florida Project meets The Shining," reported Vulture — color me deeply intrigued.
10. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Destin Daniel Cretton, July 9)
A new superhero is coming to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this summer. Shang-Chi is a Kung Fu master, an "almost invincible hand-to-hand fighter with an espionage background" who debuted in the comics in 1972, appearing regularly until licensing issues in the 1980s made it difficult to reprint the stories, Games Radar reports. Though those comics had their problems with Asian stereotypes — namely in the form of the racist creation of the villain Fu-Manchu — the 2021 project is groundbreaking due to introducing the Marvel film universe's first Asian lead, played by Simu Liu. Awkwafina stars as Katy, Shang-Chi's friend, while Fu-Manchu is replaced as the villain by Wenwu, "The Mandarin," played by Tony Leung. Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton is attached to direct, and hired The Matrix cinematographer, Bill Pope, to shoot the film, calling it the "right" tone for "our first Asian/Asian American step into the MCU."
11. Space Jam: A New Legacy (Malcolm D. Lee, July 16)
It's been a quarter of a century since Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes teamed up with Michael Jordan to take on a group of aliens in a basketball match. Thankfully, Space Jam: A New Legacy looks to be more than just a money grab, offering a completely unique story rather than trying to recapture exactly what made its predecessor a success. In the film, LeBron James apparently gets trapped with his son, Dom, in a digital world by an evil computer algorithm named AI-G Rhythm (Don Cheadle). James must then guide the Looney Tunes to victory over the computer's digital players on the court. Okay, so maybe it's a bit of a money grab — the plot presents an easy and obvious tie-in with Xbox for a Space Jam: A New Legacy video game promotion.
12. Old (M. Night Shyamalan, July 23)
M. Night Shyamalan's newest movie has perhaps my favorite lineup of actors of the year: Gael García Bernal stars opposite Vicky Krieps (the Phantom Thread star, who's been in virtually nothing since, but will be in a ton of movies this year), while newcomers Alex Wolff (the brother in Hereditary), Thomasin McKenzie (the girl in Jojo Rabbit), and Eliza Scanlen (the fantastic lead in Babyteeth) round out the cast. The film is reportedly inspired by the French graphic novel Sandcastle by Frederik Peeters and Pierre Oscar Lévy, which is described by one graphic novel blog as "a fascinating story that traps 13 normal people in a world where their whole lives will pass in less than a day." The title of Shyamalan's film suggests there might be a similar play with aging and mortality in this adaptation, but don't doubt there are more twists up his sleeve.
13. The Green Knight (David Lowery, July 30)
David Lowery has always been a filmmaker to watch: I loved his sophomore feature, 2013's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and his indie darling A Ghost Story helped cement the A24 aesthetic in 2016 — though it wasn't a horror movie, like its name might suggest. With The Green Knight, his latest, though, Lowery looks like he's doing something a little more spine-tingling. Based on the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Green Knight takes as inspiration an odd little Arthurian story in which Sir Gawain beheads the mysterious Green Knight on the condition that his magical foe can return the blow in a year and a day. Dev Patel stars as Sir Gawain, Sean Harris as Queen Guinevere, Alicia Vikander as Esel, and Ralph Ineson as the Green Knight.
14. The Suicide Squad (James Gunn, Aug. 6)
Having déjà vu? Yes, there was just a movie called Suicide Squad in 2016, and the new movie, also called Suicide Squad, is "not a sequel" and is a "total reboot" of the original. And yes, that is super confusing, especially because the first movie's cast is back to play the same characters they played in 2016. The film, then, might be considered a bit of a do-over by Warner Bros. since the first movie was critically a disaster. It will be interesting to see how James Gunn handles the R-rated reboot, but with a cast that includes Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, Nathan Fillion, John Cena, and Taika Waititi, he's got the cards stacked in his favor.
15. Deep Water (Adrian Lyne, Aug. 13)
Better known as the movie that got Ana De Armas and Ben Affleck together, Deep Water is being billed as an erotic thriller based on the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt, adapted by Todd Haynes as Carol). De Armas and Affleck play a loveless couple who agree to take other lovers, only for their mind games with each other to begin to rack up a body count. Adrian Lyne, who directed Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Flashdance, is attached but let's not kid ourselves — you're seeing this because you want to see De Armas and Affleck's chemistry, right?
16. Candyman (Nia DaCosta, Aug. 27)
Whatever you do, don't say his name. Nia DaCosta directs (and Jordan Peele produces) this "spiritual sequel" to the classic 1992 slasher film, in which an urban legend comes to life when people summon the Candyman by saying his name into a mirror. But by the time 2021's Candyman takes place, it has been years since such an entity, with a hook for a hand, terrorized the housing projects of Chicago's Cabrini Green neighborhood. When Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), move into an expensive loft in the neighborhood, the stories sound like something children use to scare each other, but soon there is the grisly evidence that Candyman walks again. Far more than being just a mindless shasher film, Candyman offers a razor-sharp commentary on gentrification and generational trauma. "We made Candyman to be seen in theaters," DaCosta wrote on Twitter in September, explaining its long delay. "Not just for the spectacle but because the film is about community and stories — how they shape each other, how they shape us."
17. The Beatles: Get Back (Peter Jackson, Aug. 27)
Acclaimed Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson trades Hobbits for "heys!" in The Beatles: Get Back, but don't make the mistake of thinking this documentary is any less epic. Pulling from 56 hours of "never-before-seen" Beatles footage, the movie is intended to give viewers a "fly-on-the-wall" look at John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as they prepared for their first live show in two years in 1969, including the Let It Be sessions and their famous rooftop performance (Jackson's movie will reportedly include all 42 minutes). Endorsed by McCartney, Starr, Lennon's widow Yoko Ono Lennon, and George Harrison's widow Olivia Harrison, the film "creates a cheerful counter-narrative to the Beatles' 1970 swan song Let It Be film, which essentially documented the group's breakup and is a rather downbeat experience," explains Variety. "The new film feels completely different, with the four members laughing and clowning around in classic moptop fashion." As Jackson explains in the clip above, "hopefully it'll put a smile on your face."
18. The Last Duel (Ridley Scott, Oct. 15)
Ridley Scott heads to 14th-century France for this epic about two knights, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). When de Carrouges returns from war, his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of raping her. De Carrouges appeals to King Charles VI (Ben Affleck — this cast, I know!), who makes the determination that the two men should fight a duel to the death, with the one left alive being declared the winner in reflection of God's will. The script is partially written by Damon and Affleck in their first collaboration since Good Will Hunting (Nicole Holofcener, who wrote the excellent adaptation of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, also contributed).
19. Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, Nov. 5)
Forever to be known as the film that Tom Hanks caught coronavirus while shooting, Baz Luhrmann returns with his first movie since 2013's The Great Gatsby, a biopic about Elvis Presley. Newcomer Austin Butler (who had a small part as Tex Watson in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) will play the King, with Maggie Gyllenhaal cast as his mother, Gladys Presley, Olivia DeJonge as his eventual wife, Priscilla Presley, and Hanks as Col. Tom Parker, "the manager who controlled every aspect of Presley's life," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Catherine Martin, who worked before with Luhrmann on Moulin Rouge!, will re-team with the director as the production and costume designer, giving us a hint that this will be the sort of big, lavish spectacle one would expect from the pair.
20. King Richard (Reinaldo Marcus Green, Nov. 19)
King Richard was supposed to be released last holiday season, but got booted nearly a full year to Nov. 2021. There are famously very few great tennis movies, which makes this one, about Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, worth keeping an eye on. Adding to the intrigue is the script by Zach Baylin, which was a runner-up on the 2018 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays. It centers on Richard (Will Smith) "overcoming hardship, skepticism, controversy, and his own troubled past to instruct his daughters, starting when they were four years old on the tennis courts of Compton, California — despite not having a background in tennis," Variety reports. Though the film has had a rocky path between lawsuits and accusations of colorism, it's always great to watch a story about how a king — and Queen — earned their crowns.
21. Encanto (Byron Howard, Jared Bush, and Charise Castro Smith, Nov. 24)
Disney's 60th feature is an animated musical set in the country of Colombia, with original music and lyrics by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The story follows a teenager named Mariana, who is growing up as the only non-magical member of a family with special powers. Byron Howard and Jared Bush — who directed Zootopia — will be working with The Haunting of Hillhouse writer Charise Castro Smith to direct this project. So far there are no further details, including any peeps about who's in the voice cast, but expect to start hearing more after the premiere of Raya and the Last Dragon.
22. Nightmare Alley (Dec. ?)
Confirmed to be coming in December, Nightmare Alley is the latest from Guillermo Del Toro, who won an Academy Award the last time he made a movie. Though I (and others) were personally a little mixed on The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley sounds more up my … er, alley. Taking place in the shadowy, noirish world of carnival workers, the story focuses on Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who performs sleight of hand tricks but begins to dabble in mentalism under a fellow carny, Zeena (the one and only Toni Collette). Soon he falls in with a dangerous psychologist named Dr. Lilith Ritter (the one and only Cate Blanchett), which is when things start to get ... interesting. Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, and Ron Perlman are also in this all-star cast.
23. The Matrix 4 (Lana Wachowski, Dec. 22)
We know basically nothing at all about The Matrix 4, except that it's being made nearly 20 years after the final film of the original trilogy, that it has a party scene, and that at some point, people jump off a skyscraper. Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jada Pinkett Smith, Lambert Wilson, and Daniel Bernhardt reprise their roles from the first three films in this sequel that is being directed solo by Lana Wachowski. Neil Patrick Harris, who also stars, described how Lana "has a great inclusive energy and her style has shifted visually from what she had done to what she is currently doing," which is intriguing if totally vague. Reeves also discussed the film on BBC's The One Show, calling the screenplay "a beautiful script that is a love story" and "another version of a kind of call to wake up and it has some great action. All will be revealed." Just not soon enough!
24. Babylon (Damien Chazelle, Dec. 25)
Damien Chazelle's First Man — his follow-up to his nearly Academy Award-winning La La Land — was a bit of a bust. The director returns to Hollywood, though, where he seems to have more luck, for this film about the transition in the late 1920s from silent films to talkies. Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie are attached, presumably to play the fictional stars the story follows, with the film set for the awards-gunning release date of Christmas Day. Still, Collider reports that Babylon hasn't begun filming yet, potentially threatening a delay. Still, wouldn't that — a normal Hollywood scheduling problem — be a refreshingly normal change?
Also highly anticipated, though not included formally on this list due to the lack of confirmed release plans, are: Three Thousand Years of Longing, an epic romance by Mad Mad: Fury Road director George Miller starring Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton (swoon!); Martin Scorsese's latest, Killers of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro; The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by singular Coen brother Joel, and starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth; Robbert Eggers Björk-starring, Viking-related follow-up to The Lighthouse, The Northman; Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since 2017's Phantom Thread, Soggy Bottom; Adam McKay's newest comedy, Don't Look Up; Guillermo del Toro's stop-motion Pinocchio; and The French Dispatch, the Wes Anderson film that was due out last year and almost certainly will be released this summer, after a potential premiere at Cannes.